Both hands on the spool fighting a mighty powerful fish

February 18, 2011
Capt. Joe Morris is shown with the 200-pound swordfish he and his crew caught off the Florida coast.

I received this story from Joe Morris, who is spending the winter in the Florida Keys. I call it, “The Old Men and the Sea” with apologies to Ernest Hemingway.

Capt. Pete Floyd, Craig Krisher, Jim Alexander and I headed offshore for a shot at swordfish. We arrived at the West Crack of Woods Wall about 9 a.m. Pete positioned the boat in 1,800 feet of water for a drift to the north. Craig set out the rig and sent the perfectly sewn, skirted blackfin tuna belly bait to the bottom. We had been drifting along at just the right speed for about 45 minutes and were in 1,200 feet of water. Pete said we were approaching the wall and soon would be in less than 1,000 feet. He suggested we start to reel in the third of a mile of line so we could set up for another drift.

Craig began winding in, and after a couple hundred feet, something struck. It felt heavy, but was acting strangely. At first we thought it might be snagged on the bottom. Then Craig started gaining line. The reel could be used both manually and electrically, so Craig switched on the electric to assist in retrieving the heavy load. Suddenly, the reel locked up with a sickening crunch. Pete said, grab the line and give me some slack, and I’ll tie it to another rod and reel.

Pete feverishly joined the two braided lines and said let it go. With the splice on a different reel, Craig started making headway. Now, an hour after the hookup, the 50-yard wind-on leader appeared, and we unsnapped the eight-pound weight that was used to take the bait into the depths.

The fish had been fighting against the weight on the way up, and noticed something different when it was gone. Off it went again, taking with it much of the line gained. Craig followed the rampaging fish to the other side of the boat, and handed over the winding duties to me. We weren’t sure how well the fish was hooked and were afraid to put on too much pressure. I was trying to gain line with a light drag, so I was pulling in the Power Pro with one hand, and cranking the reel using the other. Again, I had the wind-on leader at the reel when the fish got another burst of energy and freight-trained toward the bottom. I hung on and watched as line melted from the spool. Then we noticed Pete’s knot was becoming visible as the layers of line disappeared. I had both thumbs on the spool trying to keep it from going, but the powerful fish just kept on smokin’. We watched tensely as the knot slipped through the guides and into the depths.

Craig and I decided to double- team it, with a combination of me hand-lining the braid, and him cranking the reel. That way, we could have a light drag in case the fish took off again, but I could gain line and feel how the fish was acting with my bare hands. We still didn’t want to risk pulling the hook, so I painstakingly pulled by hand while Craig reeled. Jim spelled me for a bit, but couldn’t get a grip because of the grease on his hands from the fried chicken he’d been eating. I went back at it, and we got a glimpse of Pete’s knot in the dark-blue water. We all puckered as it creaked over the rod tip guide and was finally back on the reel. We continued to bring in line, and now, at two hours, the wind-on leader appeared once more. Pete said it seemed the fish was a little more controllable, and we had better get it now. Craig put on the gloves and began pulling in the long leader hand over hand. But we still hadn’t seen the fish.

Pete stood ready with the flying gaff while Jim was poised for action with the straight gaff. And all of a sudden, the fish popped out from under the boat, and I said, Holy *&$#, it’s a big #$%@&*$ swordfish. Pete struck as a man with a purpose, sinking the flyer deep into the sword’s gills. The shot actually pierced the heart, and it was all over. Jim stuck the straight gaff in for final control. We tail-roped it then wrestled the fish aboard. When the sword was in the boat, we realized why it had been so hard to handle. It was hooked between the front of the dorsal fin and the top of the gill. It likely happened when he made the initial swipe at the bait, and it’s probably a good thing we didn’t apply too much pressure. It was quite a group effort, and an awesome fishing day we’ll all remember for a long time.

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at

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